All posts by Catherine Ashe

About Catherine Ashe

I am a mother to 3 - 2 beautiful daughters and a very special boy. Besides my 24/7 mothering gig, I am an emergency veterinarian. I love what I do - both of my jobs. My husband teaches online for Western Governor's University, a non-profit college. Our son, James, died at 5 months and 1 day from complications related to his trisomy 18 - a devastating chromosomal disease. In his short life, he taught us a great deal about who we are as people and who we would like to be. We hope to continue his legacy by helping others in ways both big and small.

Why there is no Christmas letter this year.

I tried to write a Christmas letter. But Christmas letters are supposed to be happy, full of cheer and glowing reports of the year gone by.

What glowing thing can I say about the year in which my son died? That I’m still here? That I didn’t die with him? That there have been moments of happiness that almost, almost captivated me, before the swell of sorrow dragged me back down?

No, this isn’t the year for a Christmas letter, warm and cheerful. This is the year for hiding in my house, inhabiting my grief, stretching and limbering up the muscles of grief, because this isn’t a weight that I was ready to carry.

That’s the thing about grief in our society. We aren’t taught that it is love’s twin. We aren’t taught that they are two sides of the same coin – one impossibly bright and the other impossibly dark. We will all grieve. If we live, if we engage, if we love, then we will grieve. If you haven’t felt grief, real grief, that soul-etching, paralyzing, suffocating sorrow for the loss of someone you love, then hold tight, because you will. None of us are exempt.

Our society is so swept up in feeling good, in keeping busy, in going and doing, that we abhor grief. We actively shun it. And truthfully, who doesn’t? No one wants to feel like this, day after day, week after week, month after month. But just because we don’t want to feel that way doesn’t mean we can stop it when it happens. Grief must be inhabited. Grief must be seen, heard, felt. If it is not, then it festers inside of us. Society would have us “feel better” – take antidepressants, seek a way to “cure” our sadness. There is no cure for grief. Grief is as a part of our life as love is, should we let it in.

We must all learn to make room for it in our lives. And it’s work. It’s tremendous work to acknowledge those feelings and to bear them. It takes practice. Like anything, you aren’t born knowing how to deal with the complexities of grief. You must learn. You must train yourself. Society doesn’t teach us this. Society teaches us to run from our grief, hide from our grief, busy ourselves so that we are distracted. And it’s damaging.

I think I’ve been running from my grief, as of late. I’m trying to hide from the sorrow of our loss. I think I’ve been hiding from the pain of being a year away from the last time I held my sweet baby, alive in my arms. But in hiding, I only feel worse. The rage, the sadness, the sorrow, the loss – when they aren’t acknowledged, when I’m not with my grief, they come spilling out in other ways – ways that are not healthy.

For the past two days, I’ve been trying to be with my grief – by sitting, deliberately reading about the grieving process, and letting the sorrow flow over me. It’s scary. It’s painful. Who wants to succumb to the power of this kind of sadness? There have been times that I thought “if I let myself start crying, I will never stop.” It would seem irrational, but it’s a very real fear. Once the well of sorrow has been opened, sorrow flows over you like a river, and it often feels like drowning.

It takes great bravery to face your grief head-on, to fully inhabit that space, to allow it to drag you down. And every time that it has dragged me down, I have come up again, if even only for a little while.

I keep coming up. I keep breathing. I keep putting one foot in front of the other. Watching the world, guarding my heart, trying to extend compassion – to myself and to others. But I’m tired. I won’t lie. Grief is exhausting. It’s an almost physical weight that I bear every single day and will for the rest of my life. Sometimes, just the thought of all the days I have left to go overwhelms me, and I want to lie down and sleep forever. But I keep going. One foot. One foot. One foot.

One foot.

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Small good deed

If you’re looking for a small good deed to do this Christmas, contributing to our James’s Rainbow PICU bags is an easy way to help out a family.

Every month, on or around the anniversary of our son’s death (January 2), we take bags to the pediatric ICU at Mission. They contain small toiletries, snack foods, decks of cards, and a variety of other items that parents in the PICU can use. They are very popular and we have received lots of nice emails from appreciative parents.

Currently, we are very much in need of toiletries (travel sized shampoo, toothpaste, soaps, deodorant, etc).

If you would like to buy and send an item, you can go to our Amazon wishlist here:

http://a.co/c3rzynM

You can send as much or as little as you like.
Thanks so much, friends. We appreciate it!

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Past midnight again.

I’m here, awake with my ghosts. The ghost of what was. The ghost of what is no more. The ghost of what could have been. I’m haunted.

On the best days, the most coherent days, I still cannot believe that my actual worst nightmare came to pass. The thing I feared more than anything else, the thing that I thought I could never stand – that thing? It happened. One of my beloved children died.

I think of the time of before. That’s how life is now. Before and After. Before, I was innocent of the way that life can shift in the span of one phone call, and how that shift can never, ever be undone. My entire world is off-kilter.

January 2 marks one year since he died. But our grief began seven months before that, when we heard the news of his diagnosis. For 18 months, I have been living in an alternate reality. Everything is darker here. The light shines so blindingly bright some days, but that only makes the shadows blacker. I see everything too crisply. I have to shut my eyes sometimes. My innocence is gone.

And yet, I’m still here. I didn’t die with my son. I don’t know how. I don’t know how I stood it. I don’t know how I stand it still.

Nightmares. I have them often. Half-remembered dark dreams, lurking shapes just at the corner of my vision, dreaming of being pregnant with twins, only to lose one. Was that you, James?

Lately, I want to be alone. I feel myself drawing inward. I’m isolating myself. I don’t want invest to my love, my emotions, into those that will only go away. And that is everything. Everything fades.

This is depression, perhaps. Or it is the depression phase of grief. Who knows?

As with all things in grief, this will ebb slowly, flowing away from me, until I find my footing again. And then, when I find my footing, I will be washed away once more without warning. It’s the nature of grief.

Innocent sleep

Tonight, both of my living children are in bed with us. They sleep the deep sleep of the innocent – arms flung wide to the world, rosebud lips parted, hair mussed, eyes twitching as they dream childish dreams. I lie beside them and stare at the black windows, the vague shapes of skeletal trees outside. Sleep doesn’t come easily, and when it does, it flees just as quickly.

One year ago today, I held my son alive and warm. It was a peaceful and solitary sort of day. The kids were gone with their father to Tennessee to visit, and I stayed behind with James. I ate leftover Thanksgiving food, read a book, and snuggled with my James on the couch. It was an endless day in some ways, and I believed that it could last forever – that maybe it would last forever. Time hung suspended in the golden light of fall.

And now, here we are, one year later. He is gone. It didn’t last forever.

Once, I thought of death as the loved one receding from us, an ocean of sorrow carrying them away. Now I realize that’s wrong. The loved one is static. They are on the shore, and the river carries us on without them. They are receding, receding, receding away from us. James is always frozen there, at 5 months old. He will never change, never grow older. The river keeps carrying me along. On the bank, he stays, and he becomes smaller and smaller.  I feel like I’m floating through my life these days, just on the surface really, afraid to go any deeper. My heart cannot stand any more loss.

It’s hard to keep moving when your loved one does not. It’s hard to accept that you can’t freeze time, freeze the river, and spend one more moment with them. It’s hard to realize that here we are, a year later, and so much as changed, and so much continues to change.

For a moment today, I glimpsed happiness again. It was an ordinary sort of day. I spent it mostly alone. It wasn’t a bad kind of solitary. I didn’t slump into my grief and stay in bed. I was out, in the world, moving around, interacting. Sometimes I think I need to be reminded that the world still exists outside of my sorrow. And sometimes I think that the reminder is too painful. Why should the world still exist when mine has crumbled?

Today, I went out into that ever-onward world. And when I came home, for a second, my mind was clear, almost weightless. For a split second, I wasn’t really thinking about anything. Then grief draped itself around my shoulders again. Wrapped its arms around me in an embrace that I’ve come to know intimately. And I realized that nothing would ever be weightless again. True, unshadowed joy can never be mine again. Every joy will come with the knowledge that something – someone – is missing.

And still, yes, still, I count my blessings. I can bear both grief and gratitude at the same time. I am grateful that I knew him. I am grateful that he was mine. I am grateful that we were holding him when he died and that we brought him here, to his home, his only home, to say goodbye to him. There are so many things for which I am thankful, and it makes the grief maybe a little less heavy on some days.

But I miss him so terribly, and I always will. His DNA is woven into mine, and for that, I am grateful. I will always carry him with me.

Happy Thanksgiving, sweet baby boy.

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This is grief.

This morning, my alarm went off. On Mondays, I teach in the vet technology program. I love teaching. I love my students. The people I work with are funny and kind and unique. I’ve always wanted to teach.

And yet, for about fifteen minutes, I lay in bed just wanting to stay there all day, in a ball, with the blankets over my head. Why not? What difference does it make to the world if I get out of bed in the morning? The world will go on. The world will go on no matter what happens. No matter the atrocities in Myanmar, the shootings in schools, the natural disasters, the broken mother bearing the loss of her only son as well she can. The world marches forward, and we go with it.

I find it hilarious that I’m supposed to just keeping getting up, keep soldiering through this, rebuild my life. Paying bills. Doing laundry. It seems so mundane and foolish. I’ve seen behind the curtain.

But I did get up. And I faced the day, even though I didn’t want to do it. And when someone asked me how I was, I answered as honestly as I could – not great, not even good, but I’m here.

I feel like my grief is supposed to go underground now. It’s been almost 11 months since he died. It’s time to move on, right?

Every night, before bed, I close my eyes, and I see his little face. I see his perfect lips and his wild brown hair and his endless blue eyes. I yearn to hold him again so desperately, and it is torture to know that I never will. I will never hear his voice again. There is no salve for this wound. There is no band-aid big enough to pull these edges together.

My soul has been cleaved, and there is no undoing it.

Every night, I ask myself, why didn’t we fight harder? Did we fail him? Did we make the wrong decisions? The questions chase themselves round and round, like a serpent with its tail in its own mouth. I hate sleeping these days, and I often stay up well past a reasonable hour just to avoid lying down, closing my eyes, and seeing the last days of his life play like a movie across my eyelids.

Grief doesn’t get better. It doesn’t go away. This is who I am now, a bereaved mother. For the rest of my days on earth, I will be a bereaved mother. There is no fixing it. There is no fixing me. Drugs, counseling, electroconvulsive therapy…it won’t fix that my son is dead. It won’t fix me.

And I won’t stop talking about him. I won’t stop because someone is uncomfortable or doesn’t know what to say. I won’t stop saying his name just because saying his name makes me cry.

I miss you, James. I love you so much. I am so proud of everything you accomplished in your short life an everything that your life continues to do to help others. Every day. Every hour, minute, second.

“Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle
Everything is stitched with its color.”

 

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What to say.

What do I say? What can I say?

Since I don’t know, I’ll be silent.

I’m as guilty of this as the next person. There are people whose loss seems gargantuan in comparison to mine. You may wonder how that can be given what we’ve been through, but it’s true.

What do you say to someone who has suffered a devastating loss? Time and time again, I see articles on Facebook, articles about grief, about infertility, about sadness of every type. Those articles always chastise others for saying the wrong thing. We’ve become so afraid of saying the wrong thing that we say nothing at all. We sit by silently as we watch those around us struggle, afraid of causing more hurt – afraid that we’re overstepping our bounds.

The thing is – silence hurts. Looking away hurts. Fading into the background, assuming that someone else will be there for a struggling friend or loved one hurts.

Do you know what grievers want – grievers of every kind? Someone to listen. Someone to be there with them in their grief. We don’t want platitudes. We don’t want to hear “at least.” We don’t want to be fixed, for these wounds can’t be fixed.

We want someone to be willing to just be with us in our pain. Sometimes that means being silent, holding a hand, offering a hug, sharing a cup of coffee and quiet. Sometimes it means listening, as a griever pours out the worst thoughts – the guilt, the hurt, the sorrow, the what-ifs, the regrets.

It means not trying to fix it or make us feel better. Nothing can fix us. We need to grieve. And we need to do it on our own time line. Grief contracts and expands without concern for what we want or need.

Last night, I received a text from someone that I barely know. She’d read something that concerned her. Her words to me (some of them anyway): “None of us can pretend to really know how you feel, if we have not lost a child. But any mother among us knows such a loss is our worst fear. I won’t insult you by saying I understand. But I care…Just know it’s ok not to be ok.” And then she offered to meet me for coffee.

This is what you say. This is what you do. And in turn, I will do it for others. I’ll keep reaching out. Because what’s the point of being on this rotating ball, zipping around the sun, if we’re not going to love and support one another? Call someone that you know is struggling today. Tell them that they’re loved, and you think about them. It’s so easy to do, and it can help pull our fragmented society together.

Where am I?

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9.5 months.

I can close my eyes and go back to that day in a moment. I can remember the icy January wind blowing through me, remember the sharp, wintry brightness of the sun, the harsh, bitter beauty of that day. I remember cradling my son in my arms. How did I hold him, and he was gone? Why couldn’t the flame of my love slip into his icy body, warm him from within, bring him back to me? If only love could’ve sustained him. If only, if only.

Where am I? Am I there, stuck on that winter day, my dead son nestled in my arms? Part of me is. Part of me will always be there.

But a large part of me is here and now.

James life and his death gave me such a gift. They opened my eyes. The agonizing pain of his death could’ve closed them. I could have gone into my pain, submerged myself into the white-hot fire of sorrow that burns within me always. It would be understandable. No one would blame me (at least not outwardly), if my grief consumed me. I could’ve destroyed my own life quite without effort.

And yet, that’s not what has happened. I’ve stumbled. I still stumble. But I keep picking myself up and looking toward tomorrow, because tomorrow is always another chance to turn it around.

James opened my eyes. He opened my eyes to the sorrow in the world. To the pain. To the suffering. To the ways that I can help others. To the way that just one voice reaching out across the void can bring someone back from the brink. He reminded me that I am not alone, and I shouldn’t choose to be alone. He taught me love.

He has taught me gratitude and perspective. He taught me that even though his death is excruciating, I will not refuse to see the gifts of it. I met him. I heard his voice. I saw him smile at his big sisters. I held him warm, cradled on my chest. He was mine, and I was his, if even for a short time. That is a gift. Always a gift, and death cannot steal that from me. Nothing can. I am grateful for that time, even though it was too short. I am grateful that I was there when he came into this world, and I was there with him when he left.

The most important thing that James taught me is not to be silent. You may think that I’m talking about silence regarding his death, and while yes, I am not silent about him, that is not what I mean.

You see, I used to believe that I am just one person, in a world of pain and wrongs. What could I possibly do to help anyone else? What difference could I possibly make? James made me realize that this is the problem. We all feel like “just one person,” and so we remain silent. We see casual racism, our peers sexually harassed and assaulted, and we stay quiet. After all, what can we really do? We can’t change anyone’s opinion, right?

Maybe not. Maybe we can’t undo the wrongs of those before us. Maybe we can’t fix the racism that came before we did. We can’t undo the sexual assaults, the harassment and marginalization of ethnic groups, of women.

But what we can do is speak out against it. When we hear the word racist, we think of the NeoNazis on television and the violence in Charlottesville. We don’t think of the soft racism, the every day racism. It’s hard to stand up to these things, especially when they are perpetuated by people you love.

Just recently, a person that I love very deeply and who means the world to me, used the N-word in a conversation with myself and my husband. In the past, because of the reverence in which we hold this person, neither of us would’ve said anything. But James taught me that this casual, every day racism is just as bad as those people in Charlottesville. How can we expect our children to be better, our world to be a better place, if we sit silently by and let these things slide because of our discomfort?

We didn’t let it slide. And we won’t any longer.

James taught me to stand up and be a voice for those people. James taught me what it’s like to want to help other people, to try to make a difference in a broken world, no matter how small. Am I making a huge difference? No. Not yet. Maybe never. But I am making a small difference, every day, I hope.

So, where am I?

I’m here. Imperfect, perhaps broken, but always willing to get up, to keep walking, to keep trying, to keep loving, to keep speaking for those who don’t have a voice. There are days when I want to throw something through a window. There are days when I don’t want to get out of bed. There are days when the sadness is so overwhelming that I wish I had died with him. Most days are just sad though. Most days, I just miss his sweet voice and his big blue eyes. In that sorrow though, I feel the warm sunshine of his life, the gratitude that he was mine, that he will always be mine.

Thank you, James. I’m so proud of you.

Where there is hope.

 

October is stillbirth and infant loss awareness month.

I didn’t lose my infant. He died. He was 5 months old, and he was the most perfectly beautiful little boy that I’ve ever met. He isn’t lost. I know where he is. He’s buried behind my house in that muddy red North Carolina clay. His headstone simply reads “James Julian Ashe – Beloved Son and Brother.”

What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? We survive this tragedy because there is no alternative. I am not strong. I am not wise. I am a heartbroken mother with two daughters that rely on me to keep getting up every morning. I am wife to a broken husband who needs a hand to hold in the dark. I am daughter to grandparents that weep for their grandson.

You say that you don’t know how I do it. Neither do I.

You ask me how I’m doing, but do you really want to know? Some of you stay, reach out, keep reaching out, even when the text or phone call goes unanswered. Some of you “dissolve into the ether,” as if you never were.

The world turns on its axis. People are afraid to say his name. As if saying his name could somehow deepen my pain. Hearing his name only lessens the pain. It tells me that he is remembered, that others loved him, that others love him still. I say his name. You can too.

I am a walking, raw, hemorrhaging heart. I am his mother. Mothers, above all, suffer when their children die. We suffer so much that we forget others suffer too. We forget that others want to tell us that they are sad, that they miss him, that they weep for us in the dead of night.

I look at my friend, heavy with child, and I see beneath the surface for just a moment, imagine what it must be like to watch your friend lose her beloved child. I look at pictures of his funeral, and I am fascinated by the faces of those in the crowd around his grave. I try to read their expressions, as if they are messages from some other time and place, and if I just study them enough, I will find answers. I will find keys to unlock the vault of grief in which I’m trapped.

One year ago, he was here. Those were the best days of his life. Those were the best days of my life. I was home with all of my children, in the place that I love best.

Those days are gone now, and James is too.

What strikes me here, at nine months since his death, is that I can go on. I do go on. I still laugh, though maybe not as much. I still read books. I still write. I still exist in the world, even when I would rather not. Every morning, I claw back from the abyss. Every night, I slide back into it.

I will never be the same. My world will never be the same.

This picture is one of my favorites. It’s exactly 1 year ago today. James was supervising as I prepared a meal for our family. I miss my sous-chef.

And yet, I’m proud that he was mine. I’m proud that he was here and that we gave him so much love. I’m not sorry for his life, though of course, I wish he was still living it. I can’t be sorry for James. Every morning, I wake up and I keep clawing. And I’m still here. And every day, there are glimmers of hope.

Hope.

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The last good night.

They say that “time heals all wounds.” It doesn’t. Time changes the wounds, but they never go away. That’s how we get scars. Time isn’t a healer. Time is just…time – impartial, blind, ever moving dumbly forward.

I find myself in a land with no map. Navigating each day has become an exercise in stubbed toes, sprained ankles, aches and pains, as I try to find a way through this unknown country of pain. I look in the mirror, and I’m not sure who I am anymore. I go to work. I do my job. I smile. I make jokes. I hold the hands of my nervous students. I cook. I clean. I garden. I read to my lovely children. Time keeps moving.

I’m waiting. But I don’t know for what. Maybe I’m waiting to exhale again – to breathe out and feel the crushing weight lift.

James’s life keeps shrinking. Five months. Five months come and gone like a sigh.

What do you say about a baby that no one really knew? How do you share memories of a baby only here for 5 months? When you lose an adult or an older child, you can share those memories with others. You can look at each other, smile, say “remember when?” With James, only one other person shares that intimacy with me. Jim. No one else knew James like we did. No one else held him every single moment of his life, knew his every baby sigh and coo.

Grief is isolating. Grieving a baby is even more isolating.

Experienced loss parents told me that some of my friends would slip away – friends that I didn’t expect. I should’ve believed them, but I chose not to do so. And they were right. People that I expected to always be there for me slipped away quietly. Others that I didn’t know that well came forward, sent me cards, letters, remembrances of our son.

Still, at nine months, I feel a sense of “time to move on.” The letters and cards have tapered off. The offers of help have slowly faded away. The texts and messages are less and less frequent. I get it. The world goes on. Other children are born. Loved ones die. We are not unique in our suffering.

So the grief goes a little more underground every day. I’m out there, functioning. I’m working. I’m taking care of my children. I’m “better.” Right? Hysterical breakdowns in public aren’t allowed at this stage of grieving. That’s past. Except it’s not. Every breath I take in and every breath I let out, I feel him with me and yet gone.

I remember the last good night that we had together. It was December 27th, 2016 – the night before his tracheostomy surgery. Jim and I both spent the night with James there in the PICU. We knew that surgery carried such risk for him, and we wanted to spend that last night together. If it was his last night, we wanted it to be a good one.

As it turned out, it wasn’t his last night, but it was the last good one. It was the last one where we could freely hold our precious son. We could cradle him on our chests. We laughed and told him stories. We listened to music – music that took us both straight back to the early days of our relationship…some twenty years ago. We talked about rock climbing, our first apartment, and the life we used to live. James lay between us, half on Jim and half on me. He was awake and alert. He listened. He basked in our love.

It was a good night. It was the last good night.

I cling to that memory when I close my eyes at night and question everything all over again. When the voice tells me how miserably I failed my sweet James, I see our family that night, nestled in the bed together. I see that night. That last. good. night.